Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Inveterate Critic

This morning, Palm Sunday, was the first Sunday since I left my position at UPC that I haven't been preaching somewhere (or doing an official COM visit). My initial thought was to go check out an Episcopalian church in Lexington that I have wanted to visit, but the late night, high cost of gas, bad brakes on the car, and rain got the better of me, and I decided to stay closer to home and swing in the total opposite direction: from high church and sung liturgy to no liturgy at a local campus of a Lexington megachurch. 

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I find it difficult to simply visit a church, without critiquing what is going on, what is and isn't being said, sung, etc... Part of that is an occupational hazard, I'm sure, but I think it is mostly my J coming out in full force. 

It's not the first time I've been to a church like this, and I don't automatically dismiss these shopping center churches as I've heard others do. Still, I left feeling like I still hadn't been to church, and I really miss that on this particular Sunday as the prelude to Holy Week. 

This church is literally in a shopping center, sharing the same physical plant space as the movie theater, a restaurant, and a now-defunct Food Lion. The entrance to the worship space is bright, clean, and minimal, with computer terminals and information stations to help people connect with what is going on in the church. Upon entering the worship space, there are no visible signs of this being a church. It looks like the inside of a big box store or warehouse converted into a concert venue. Upbeat music is playing - the kind of music that you might hear at beginning of a sporting event. Lighting is pretty low, and so it is easy to be inconspicuous. Churchgoers have two seating choices - at round tables far off to the side, or at any number of chairs set up in rows in the main space. There are coffee urns and muffins available at the back, and two giant screens display announcements of an upcoming "Baptisms at the Pond" next Sunday and other information. 

My visit came at the end of a four week sermon series: The Fatal Four (of course referencing the NCAA tournament). Today's sermon: "March Madness: When the Call Doesn't Go Your Way." The service opened with two songs which most people didn't seem to know, or at least didn't sing along with, led by a full band and singers on stage. The lighting gets even lower for the worship, with stage lights of various colors illuminating the band up front. One can truly be a spectator here. If you don't know anyone, aren't sure what to think about the whole church thing, it is easy to come, sit, and not feel all eyes on you. 

After two songs, one of the pastors from Lexington comes out and welcomes us, gives some information, and makes a few digs at Louisville fans, cheers for UK's win and the fact that they are one of only two teams to make it to April Madness. I'm not surprised by this - we are in the heart of UK country - and he gets a few rounds of applause. He introduces the sermon and invites us to greet each other for a minute, and then it's showtime. I mean sermon time. 

Except that the video starts with a commercial of sorts - a play on the DirecTV commercials following the moves from getting angry at the cable company to ending up in a ditch, reenacting Platoon with Charlie Sheen, etc... This one starts out, "When you bet on Duke to take it all in your office pool, you end up with a busted bracket and at the bottom of the pool. When you... and so on, until the moral of the commercial: "Ditch Duke and go for another team in Blue." This video gets the biggest cheers of all. Setting aside the fact that I am a lifelong Duke fan, and that I did put Duke winning it all in my horribly busted bracket, the video has nothing to do with anything - not the sermon, nothing happening at the church, etc... So how is this the prelude to the sermon? 

Then the sermon video starts, and the piped-in preacher makes more comments about March Madness, the Final Four, pokes at other teams, and finally says, "Go cats!" More cheers. Clearly he knows his audience, and obviously this is just further proof of what is really religion around here. I can only judge this so far, having been a Duke fan growing up in Durham, a Red Sox fan living in Boston... I can understand the ethos of sport as religion. 

Diving into the heart of the sermon, which is at least half of the service length overall, he talks about anger. There is no central Scripture reading, rather a smattering of verses thrown up on the screen throughout the sermon, interspersed in roughly equal proportions with quotations from other sources, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Dallas Willard, Aristotle (in a paraphrase unlike any I've ever heard), and his own Twitter account. The scripture references come with just one or two verses at a time, and I counted at least 6 different translations (or paraphrases) used over the course of the message, including the New International, Today's New International, Good News, Living Bible, Message, and New Living Translation. 

Anger is a tough topic to tackle, and I was pleased that he recognized that not everyone deals with anger in the same way. He brought in some pop psychology, looking at anger as a 2nd emotion masking whatever is really going on. He also validated righteous anger, like the kind that Jesus had when he entered the Temple and turned over the tables. At this point, he said, "By the way, that was 2000 years ago this weekend," which was the only allusion to Palm Sunday through the whole service. "Palm Sunday" wasn't mentioned at all, and I doubt that most of the congregation would have made that connection, particularly since that particular episode in Jesus' ministry comes either at the beginning or near the end of his ministry, depending on which gospel you read. 

At one point, the preacher said, "You know, this is one of my favorite weeks of the whole year... in sports." For a split second I had hoped for a mention of Holy Week. That was simply his lead in to talk about Bobby Jones, the golfer (and refer to a Happy Gilmore scene shown earlier in the sermon).

I appreciated his validation of righteous anger - the kind of anger we should feel when we witness violence, injustice, etc... But most of his talk of anger and description of how we experience or express it leaned towards the angry outbursts and stereotypically explosive expressions of anger. The "Game Plan" he offered at the end was a neatly packaged, 3 bullet-point alliterated guide aimed, I think, mostly at the expression of anger: "Reflect before you react," "Remember the results," and "Restrain your remarks."

All of this perpetuates the idea that good Christians shouldn't get angry. We don't react in anger even if we feel it. We think about the results of our angry actions, and we don't say anything in wrath. The exhibition of anger is seen as something that Christians should avoid at all costs, and I think women in particular have been deeply harmed by messages like these. Undoubtedly many people in the congregation do need to hear a message on anger management, but where is the balance? And where is the gospel message in a sermon on anger management? Where is the good news? 

I thought of the kind of crowds these churches draw and wonder about the spiritual and Christian formation. The Bible was used simply as a kind of instruction book, or even a collection of quotations for positive thinking, without any sense of coherency or history. How is that developed and nurtured? How do members come to understand themselves as children of God, and as part of a much larger story that is revealed to us by God through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit? 

After the sermon, without any kind of preface, introduction, words of institution, or anything, communion was distributed through the rows - tiny cracker like wafers and shot cups of juice all at once. No instruction was given, no articulation of the mystery of faith, no sense of community at all. For those sitting at the round tables, I noticed that they actually had to get up and go to a table where the communion was laying out for self-service, along with an offering basket. Following communion, the band came out and led two more songs, and then the pastor returned to make a few more announcements, including the first verbal mention of next week being Easter Sunday, which means baptisms at the Pond. Yes, that's what Easter Sunday means to me, too. While he was making announcements, I was aware that those of us in the rows were being passed offering pouches - again, no invitation to offering, no mention of our response of Thanksgiving for what God has given, etc...  And that was it. Church dismissed. 

Perhaps I should take a cue from the sermon and tone down my criticisms, ask what is really going on here for me, in my critique. I'm sure part of that is a sense of loss of having traveled through the Lenten season. Since I have been in different churches from week to week, I haven't had that sense of continuity. It is a loss. Pastors already face a challenge of being a leader in a worship community and also being part of it; of leading worship and participating at the same time. Guest pastors face that to an even greater degree, I think, because there is a further separation between the preacher and the community of faith. 

Part of me would like to find a regular community of worship. Part of me would really enjoy having a year to just go and visit many different places, to be a fly on the wall, a visitor in the pews, a participant and observer. And then there is the part of me that continues to feel called to preach, to lead worship, and to struggle with what that means for me here, now, and beyond. And so I continue in the Lenten fast of a rather amorphous vocational identity, neither here nor there, but somewhere in between. 

And in my heart, I can still shout my hosannas and wave my palms as we enter into this Holy Week.

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